Taylor relies on flair to pin down French strength

It is thus unfortunate that England have not only been drawn against strong opposition but must meet them with several key players missing through injury.

A quartet of withdrawals, headed by the captain Nigel Reo-Coker and the exciting new talent Aaron Lennon, yesterday became a quintet when Charlton's Jerome Thomas pulled a hamstring. With the stand-in captain Gary O'Neil also doubtful, Taylor, not for the first time, will be juggling his dwindling resources right up to kick-off. There is, at least, the return from the senior squad of Darren Bent, who will partner Carlton Cole in attack, and Kieran Richardson.

"It is good to have them with us," Taylor said. "France are a strong team but so are we. We'll be looking to play good football and get crosses in."

England will be supported by a 30,000-plus crowd. With astute ticket pricing (£10 for adults, £5 for children) offsetting the Friday night traffic conditions, the match may even sell out. "I hope the French youngsters find it daunting," Taylor said. He could also be forgiven for hoping for some favourable refereeing: Tonight's official is a Mr Eriksson, from Sweden.

One player who will feel at home is Tottenham's Michael Dawson, who will join Anton Ferdinand in central defence. "To be playing for England at my home ground will be special," he said. Dawson, who has been keeping Noureddine Naybet and Anthony Gardner out of the Spurs team, credits Des Walker, his former defensive partner at Nottingham Forest, and Ledley King, his partner at Tottenham, with speeding his progress.

France have a useful record in age-group competition, having recently won the Under-19 championships in Ireland, defeating England in the final. But none of the four English-based players in their squad are Premiership regulars. Gaël Clichy, of Arsenal, Lassana Diarra, Claude Makelele's understudy at Chelsea, and Liverpool's Florent Sinama-Pongolle are expected to start. The latter's Anfield team-mate, Anthony Le Tallec, on loan at Sunderland, is likely to be on the bench.

The second leg is in Nancy on Tuesday with the finals - likely to be held in Italy or Portugal - scheduled for 25 May to 6 June.

England Under-21 (probable, 4-4-2): Carson (Liverpool); Taylor (Wigan), Ferdinand (West Ham), Dawson (Tottenham), Hoyte (Sunderland); Ambrose (Charlton), Huddlestone (Wolves), O'Neil (Portsmouth) or Milner (Aston Villa), Richardson (Manchester United); Cole (Chelsea), Bent (Charlton).

France Under-21 (probable, 4-1-3-2): Gavanon (Clermont); Sagna (Auxerre), Faty (Stade Rennes), Zubar (Caen), Clichy (Arsenal); Diarra (Chelsea); Debuchy (Lille), Mavuba (Bordeaux), Toulalan (Nantes); Sinama-Pongolle (Liverpool), Briand (Stade Rennes).

Referee: J Eriksson (Sweden).

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